In Chitral, one of the most remote districts in northern Pakistan, change is underway for how students are learning in school. Once bored and unmotivated, they are now curious, creative and passionate. As a result, their learning achievements are better than ever. Why the change? For starters, the teachers are teaching differently.
In 2016, the Aga Khan Foundation’s (AKF) School Improvement Programme (SIP) began in select schools in Pakistan’s mountainous northern region. Now the programme is in over 270 government and community schools in 10 valleys in Gilgit-Baltistan and 6 in Chitral.
SIP focuses on improving children’s learning outcomes by strengthening the capacity of all stakeholders to support them. A central part of the programme is working with teachers to transform their classrooms into engaging environments that spark students’ curiosity and passion for learning.
Teachers as agents of change
As part of SIP, teachers receive training on instructional leadership, school development planning, early childhood education and development, the Reading for Children programme, multi-grade teaching, and education communities of practice. These teachers then train peers at their home schools on what they learned and form clusters across neighbouring primary and secondary schools to share best practices. This has had a profound impact on how teachers deliver lessons and how students receive them.
“Before, it was very boring for students,” one teacher from the very remote Khot Valley says frankly, referring to the prior instructional style that relied on rote memorisation. “Some students stopped coming to school. Now we are using various materials and classrooms have become interactive places for students to learn.”
Because of this, she says, students are inventing concepts and being creative. Shy students who would recede to the back of the classroom are now taking centre stage and speaking up boldly. Finding what interests these children and making that connection to the lesson at hand is a key way to engage them.
“We don’t only rely on the textbooks now,” says Jafar Saib, a teacher and lead member of the Quality Assurance Team in Chitral. “We use newspapers, the Internet and other sources. Now we know how to channel our energies. Before we were not engaging, and now we are fully engaging. Nobody asked us about our teaching before. Now we are being asked about our challenges and problems – and being given guidance and feedback.”
One of the programme’s greatest strengths is its ability to tap into core motivations of teachers to engage and empower them to be true champions of educational change. Many of them note that teaching is now enjoyable. One likens the joys of teaching to nurturing a plant:
“It is like a seed. If it grows, you are happy. If it doesn’t grow, you are not happy,” she says. “When the student understands the concept, it is a pleasurable moment for the teacher.”
Teachers in the driver’s seat
In Garam Chasma (“hot springs”), Shanila Parveen is at the frontlines of this educational transformation. She is the sole teacher at a SIP-supported government primary school. Every day, she walks three hours to school – and three hours home – to ensure that her students get a quality education. Through support and training from AKF, she helped start the early childhood development centre in her school and recruited mothers to help her lead the classes.
“After the project, the environment changed in my school,” she says beaming. “Now the parents interact with me, and together we monitor the children’s progress.”
Shanila notes the recharged energy in her students, thanks to both her new tactics and the physical change in the school. Before her school did not have carpet or decorations. Now its floors are carpeted with walls covered in colourful drawings. But the true driver of change is her new teaching skills and the renewed motivation she has to apply them.
“SIP has given me direction to work hard and manage multiple grades,” Shanila says. “Other teachers are saying, ‘How can we do this? How can we manage multiple classes plus early childhood development?’ But it is possible, with the right tools, training and support.”
The mothers of the school note a change, too, and credit it to both SIP and the efforts of Shanila.
“Now, my child comes home and tells me everything the teacher does. She is excited to talk about her teacher now,” one mother says. “The teacher’s motivation inspires us to take part.”
Another mother underscores the importance of having committed, engaged teachers in her children’s school: “We can’t afford other schools. If the government provides us with motivated teachers, it changes the entire quality of the school. We want quality in all the government schools.”
Parents now feel that their children are truly receiving high quality education. Other parents in Garam Chasma have taken note of this shift, too, with some even deciding to move their children from private schools to the SIP-supported government school.
“I moved my child from private school to here because I know what’s happening here,” one mother says. “I can observe the libraries and the early childhood development classroom. I am so happy with my children’s progress and the teacher’s motivation.”
SIP promotes professionalism in schools and creates a space for teachers to talk politics and discuss local goings-on. This has had ripple effects in the valley.
“We’ve gained respect in society,” one teacher says. “Before training, the community was not interested in government schools – there was a preference for private education. Now the community is involved in school learning.” He cites that 15 students have come from private school to his SIP-supported government school.
Towards improving more schools
The SIP approach is rooted in the belief that all members of a school community – from parents and teachers to government officials – can make tangible contributions to improve learning outcomes for children. And while SIP has seen early success in the schools where it has been implemented, many schools are still left behind. As of 2018, only 21.5% of the primary, middle and high schools in Chitral had received support. Yet the desire for expansion is there. One SIP teacher explains:
“Many people from outside schools, including private schools, have approached us saying, ‘Just tell me how this model works.’ Seeing the increased enthusiasm of the teachers and the interaction of parents – they want to be a part of it.”
The hope is to spread the message to more schools so that teachers across all of northern Pakistan – no matter their background or setting – can be champions of educational change.
This spotlight was adapted from an article originally published on the AKF USA website.